Assessing ESL students in the subject classroom

This page suggest ways to create fair assessments for ESL students in mainstream classes.


Assessment is a multi-faceted issue that has been the focus of considerable attention in education over the past decades. Before discussing assessment as it directly pertains to ESL students, it is helpful to offer a brief overview of its major aspects.

Assessment overview

In essence, assessment is of three types: initial, formative and summative.

  • Initial assessment consists of the measures undertaken by the teacher to determine what the student already knows and can do. Initial assessment is often used to place students in a particular course or level.

  • Formative assessment comprises the ongoing checks that the teacher makes to determine if the students are acquiring the knowledge and skills that are the objectives of the unit. Formative assessment allows the teacher to adjust the content and teaching methodologies of forthcoming instruction.

  • Summative assessment is the evaluation conducted at the end of a unit to determine how well the students have learned the content and skills they have been taught. Summative assessment is often the basis for a report or grade that is conveyed to the student's parents.

    Summative feedback usually involves grading according to a set of criteria determined by the teacher. The fair grading of ESL students is a complex issue.

Other ways of categorizing assessment which overlap with the three categories discussed above include: formal / informal, alternative, authentic, peer and self-assessment.

  • Formal assessment includes written examinations or classroom presentations, and usually results in a grade. Informal assessment includes observations, interviews and checklists.

  • The term alternative assessment is most commonly used to differentiate it from traditional assessment by pen-and-paper tests. Portfolio assessment is a popular form of alternative assessment.

  • Authentic assessment is the term to describe the use of real-world tasks to demonstrate how far the student has acquired the essential knowledge and skills that are the focus of the unit of instruction. As such, an authentic assessment task differs from, for example, a traditional multiple-choice format.

  • Peer -assessment is the evaluation by a peer of an another student's work in progress. This is most often conducted using a checklist provided by the teacher, at a stage where the student can act on the feedback to improve the work.

  • Self -assessment is the assessment by the students themselves of their understanding and skills. It can take place during the course of a unit (formative) or at the end (summative).


Feedback is an integral part of the assessment process. Indeed, many types of formative assessment can themselves be regarded as feedback. Robust research tells us that feedback is essential to development, provided that it is timely, relevant and action-oriented.

For example, see this article co-authored by John Hattie, of Visible Learning fame: Feedback in schools.

The assessment of ESL students: Preamble

The discussion here will be limited to the assessments that teachers create for their own groups of students. This excludes all standardized testing and assessments set by outside authorities such as examination boards.

In view of the complex, multi-faceted nature of assessment in general, it is not surprising that there is no single or simple solution to the thorny question of how to fairly and reliably assess the subject knowledge, understanding and skills of ESL students in content classrooms.

Indeed, the issue is even more complicated due to an additional facet or variable, namely the level of English proficiency of the ESL student.

Nevertheless, it is hoped that the comments and suggestions offered below will make it possible for mainstream teachers to create assessments that are fair and reliable measures of the content knowledge and skills of the ESL students in their classes at all stages of their English language development.

The fundamental problem is determining how students can demonstrate knowledge and understanding when their English is limited. This limited English makes both language input Input is the language that students must understand in order to undertake the assessment task (in other words, the written or oral instructions given by the teacher). and language output Output is the language that students must produce in fulfilment of the task requirements. difficult.

The solution to the problem in respect of any given assessment may be one or a combination of three practices: provision of an alternative task, modification of the task, and offering various other accommodations.

The assessment of ESL students: Alternative assessment

Providing ESL students with a different way to demonstrate knowledge and skills (i.e. alternative assessment ) is often the only sensible choice for those with low English proficiency.

Having them do the same assessment as the native speakers in the class can be a demoralising experience. This is particularly the case if they understand the content, but do not yet have the English to articulate this understanding.

There are numerous types of alternative assessment which reduce or even remove the language input and output demands of a task. These include nonverbal strategies such as pointing or drawing, role plays, graphic organizers and sentence starts.

Portfolios, containing a variety of different work products (such as writing samples, labelled diagrams or pictures, checklists, audio files), are a good way for students to demonstrate their developing knowledge and skills. They can be used as an alternative to summative assessments based on final written examinations.

Here is a brief overview of alternative assessments for ESL students.

The assessment of ESL students: Task modification

In many cases, particularly for students who are more proficient in English, teachers may wish all students to do the same written assessment. This is where modifications of the language input have a part to play.

There are several aspects of written language that can make it more difficult for ESL students to quickly understand what the assessment task requires of them. Modifying the language of the task can be done without changing its content or cognitive challenge. This makes for a test that is fair for ESL students.

Elsewhere on this site is detailed advice on identifying and modifying aspects of written language input that are likely to cause difficulty: Preparing ESL-friendly worksheets and tests .

As for output, ESL students can be given a version of the test that contains sentence starts or sentence frames. This reduces the amount of English that they must produce themselves.

The assessment of ESL students: Accommodations

The third way to ensure a fair test for ESL students is to offer them various accommodations. The most obvious and important of these is to allow them more time to complete the assessment. Other strategies include:

  • permitting use of a dictionary,
  • reading the question aloud to the student,
  • explaining the question or words in it orally,
  • allowing the student to give the answer in the mother tongue, which is then translated by an English-proficient native peer,
  • having the ESL teacher preteach key vocabulary,
  • showing the test paper to students in advance so that they know what to expect,
  • reducing the minimum word count in long writing tasks
  • discussing model answers to tasks similar to those on the test,
  • discussing how the assessment will be graded (e.g. via a rubric),
  • not including language criteria in the calculation of the final grade.

Some of these accommodations may be considered appropriate for all students, not just those with limited English proficiency.


Clearly, subject teachers have various ways of giving ESL students appropriate feedback about their developing subject knowledge and skills. The question arises, however, as to the feedback they should be giving about language errors.

The page More advice about teaching ESL students (FAQ) suggests the best ways to frame feedback to ESL students on their errors of grammar, spelling and pronunciation.


Determining a fair grade for a piece of work done by an ESL student is a complex matter. Theoretically, it is desirable if the grade for individual students at their various levels of English proficiency is based on what they can do, rather than what they can't. But in practice it is often difficult to achieve consistency, fairness and transparency for all students.

The FAQ page linked to in the section above has a brief answer to the question How should I grade my ESL students? which might work for some teachers in some assessment contexts.

A final thought

It is a good idea to consult with the student's ESL teacher when planning to give an important assessment. He or she can offer advice on the language demands of the assessment tasks and suggest appropriate accommodations based on the language proficiency of the student.

Most ESL teachers are happy to undertake the linguistic modifications that are necessary to make for a more manageable task. Or even to write an alternative assessment so that the student has the best chance to demonstrate knowledge and skills.

Links to other resources

Following are links to external websites that discuss the main issues concerning the assessment of ESL students, and suggest various strategies.